It should be clear by now that I passionately believe that real spiritual/mystical experiences happen. People experience the presence of divinity. I don’t know for sure whether they are merely experiencing a neurological or psychological phenomenon, or whether they are actually contacting a real deity, or whether the distinction is meaningful. What I am sure of is that mystics throughout history have reported eerily similar phenomena and labeled them as divine contact.
Mormonism has taught since the days of Joseph Smith that such mystical experiences–jargonically termed “personal revelation”–are available to Mormons, basically on demand. Modern-day Mormon prophets have consistently promised that every earnest seeker who asks God for a personal confirmation of the truth of Mormonism and/or its components will receive it. The problem with these promises is that inasmuch as mystical experiences exist, that’s just not the way it works. No matter what your theology promises, God is not on tap. God is not predictable, as much as we would like it to be.
To reconcile the irreconcilable–theological promises about the availability of mystical experience and the unpredictable reality of mystical experience–Mormonism has lowered the bar on personal revelation. Mormons believe a priori that mystical experience is there for the asking, so when experience prove otherwise, experience must be wrong. Mormons tell each other things like “I think you have had personal revelation; you just don’t recognize it,” and they tell themselves stories about how subtle the Holy Ghost’s influence is.
But they’re wrong. They’re ridiculous, even. The real experience of the presence of God is not subtle. It is not difficult to discern. It is like a hurricane: massive, beyond control. Like a roller coaster, but you can’t really be certain that it is going to stay on the tracks. Real contact with God is total loss of sense of self, a total absorbtion into something so huge and so other that it can’t be described.
But like I said, that kind of thing is rare and unpredictable, and so it doesn’t really do a good job of fulfilling Mormonism’s promises about the availability of personal revelation. So, to make up for God’s failure to deliver on Mormonism’s promises (which can’t possibly be true because then Mormonism would be false, and Mormons assume that cannot be the case), Mormons recast completely mundane experiences as “personal revelation,” and thus save themselves from having to face the unfortunate disconnect between Mormon theology and the real experience of God.
What follows is a list of things that do not count as spiritual or mystical experiences, but that are often characterized as such in Mormon testimonies. They are in no particular order.
1. Negative Confirmations: These happen when I either want to do something or thought I should do something, and so I prayed for guidance, and God did not definitely tell me “no,” and afterward I felt an increased desire and/or obligation (as the case may be) to do the thing. But that’s not personal revelation; it’s what I wanted to do anyway. Silence from God can’t possibly be evidence of God’s influence in my life. The increased motivation post-prayer is just excitement or resignation in the absence of a contrary instruction from God, along the lines of “God didn’t say ‘no,’ so it is definitely the right thing to do, and it’s coincidentally what I wanted to do anyway! Hooray!“
2. A Burning In The Bosom: Mormon scriptures describe prayers being answered by personal revelation in the form of a “burning in the bosom”: a warm sensation in the chest. This happens to Mormons, and it shouldn’t be a surprise at all, because it is basic Classical Conditioning at work. Let’s say that for my whole life I am told that I will feel a warm sensation when certain triggers happen (when I pray, when I read the scriptures, when I go to church, when I am with my family, whatever) and that this warm feeling is the Holy Ghost. When this warm feeling inevitably results, it is not the Holy Ghost at all. I have conditioned myself. I have spent my life looking for a particular sensation whenever the appropriate trigger is present, and eventually my body obliges my mind by producing said sensation. This makes me happy because it confirms my religion to me, and it is the thing I have been wanting to happen. Thus, my body learns that producing a warm feeling in response to certain triggers makes me happy. This is not called God. This is called Pavlov’s dog.
3. Intense Emotional Responses: When I watch a Church movie, I may indeed get choked up and emotional when something poignant and magical happens. But this isn’t personal revelation of the gospel truth being presented in the movie; this is my emotions being manipulated. TV shows and movies do this all the time. Filmmakers, directors, artists, composers, musicians, and writers can and do purposely arrange this stuff to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel certain emotions. And it happens in other situations, too (the kinds of legitimately emotional situations that these filmmakers are trying to artificially provoke): when I bear my testimony I might cry because I am sharing something deeply personal and emotional, so I have emotions when I talk about it. But that’s not the presence of God; that’s just having feelings.
4. Contentment And Happiness: Feeling generally happy and content about the spiritual tradition and related community that I have been brought up in is just normal. It’s a classic case of the grass looking greener on this side of the fence, and it results from a basic human complacency with the status quo. People are comfortable with what they know, and being comfortable feels pleasant. On the other side of the coin, converts to Mormonism may feel happy and content with their adopted faith tradition, but again, this comes from natural and expected feelings of gratitude and newfound belonging. Belonging feels good, whether it’s a church or a street gang. Being happy with your religion is a perfectly good reason to stick with your religion. But is isn’t a mystical message from God that your religion is the one true path, because pretty much everyone feels that way about their own religion.
5. “Impressions”: When I suddenly feel impressed to knock on a door, to approach someone on the street or a train, or to get up and bear my testimony, I may think something along the lines of the following: “hey, I just had a thought about doing that–I wonder if it was God telling me to do it. No, it was just a thought. Bt wait, what if I am talking myself into ignoring the Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost telling me to do this and I am just brushing it off? Why would I do that? Of course this was an impression; of course this was the Holy Ghost!” That is not personal revelation from God; that is a hilarious mind game you are playing with yourself.
6. Good Ideas: Sometimes, I suddenly have a great idea, out of nowhere. I might therefore want to attribute it to God, especially if it is related to church, religion, or my calling. But here’s the thing: people just have good ideas all the time.
All of these things are normal, basic humanity stuff. They happen to everyone. So the only way they come from God is if everything comes from God, and then we have to invent a new word for the mystical peak experiences that seem to be something wholly other, and from which these normal human life experiences are qualitatively distinct. And even then, if I have to concede that these things do come from God, they definitely don’t come from God in a “personal revelation that proves that the Church is true,” because they happen to everybody.
Even if I take Mormonism at its word and accept that feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost (i.e. the presence of God) is conclusive and unimpeachable proof that all of the Church’s truth claims are true–which I most certainly do not–these six types of experiences just don’t count.
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